Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

June 6 & 13, 2016 Issue


This week’s New Yorker is a fabulous treat, not because it’s the Fiction Issue, but because it contains four delectable critical pieces – James Wood’s "Making the Cut," Anthony Lane’s "In the Picture," Alex Ross’s "Cello Nation," and Peter Schjeldahl’s "The Future Looked Bright."

Wood’s “Making the Cut,” is a review of Emma Cline’s novel The Girls. To my knowledge, it’s the first piece in which Wood criticizes use of sentence fragments. First, he praises such usage. He says, “Generally, Cline favors sentence fragments, sharp scintillae of impressions, and by and large these ably forward her project: Evie, unmoored, lost, greedily swallows the world, in bright pieces.” But later, he comments,

One strength of the novel gradually becomes a vulnerability. Cline loves phrasal fragments: “The dark maritime cypress packed tight outside the window, the twitch of salt air.” Or this, near the end of the book, as the victims are herded into Mitch’s living room: “Linda in her underpants, her big T-shirt—she must have thought that as long as she was quiet and polite, she’d be fine. Trying to reassure Christopher with her eyes. The chub of his hand in hers, his untrimmed fingernails.” This is a metonymic style, in which the zealously chosen detail (those untrimmed fingernails) stands in for a larger set of facts. It looks like tidied-up Joyce (a version of stream of consciousness), but it is really broken-up Flaubert: heavily visual, it fetishizes detail and the rendering of detail.

And, in his concluding paragraph, he says,

The sentence fragment is suddenly everywhere in fiction today, and increasingly seems an emblematic unit of the literary age. It is vivid and provisional, inhabits the vital moment, and renders the world in a cascade of tiled perceptions. But it also tends to restrict a novel’s ability to make large connections, larger coherences, the expansion and deepening of its themes.

This is a variation on Wood’s case against Flaubert and the “cult of the detail” (How Fiction Works). A sentence fragment is almost pure detail. It’s a form of description. I relish it. Consider the following passage from Iain Sinclair’s superb Ghost Milk:

Studying the Ordinance Survey Map for the Thames Estuary, I saw no good reason why I couldn’t walk the shore from the village of Grain, along Cockleshell Beach to the London Stone; or, failing that, down a track past Rose Court Farm to Grain Marsh. But maps are deceptive: they entice you with pure white space, little blue rivulets, a church with a tower, the promise of a shell-hunting foreshore; and then they hit you with tank traps, warning notices. Military firing range keep out. Rusting metal poles looped with fresh barbed wire. A pebble shore protected by a sharp-angled Vorticist alphabet of obstructions, concrete blocks crusted with orange lichen. Wrecked cars turned on their backs and absorbed into nature. Footpaths doubling back into aggregate dunes, darkly shadowed lakes and refuse dumps. Cattle, on strips of land between tricky creeks, might be part of a real farm or target practice. Across the marshes, the smokestacks of constantly belching power stations. When the coastal path failed, I tried the quiet back road: running up against ponds reserved for the angling club of Marconi Electronic Systems, the privileged fishermen of BAE Systems. A huddle of police cottages monitored access to North Level Marsh and the London Stone. Private MOD road. Residents and visitors to police cottages only. I backtracked, walked for hours – and eventually found myself, once more, on the wrong side of the Yantlet, near the colony of huts and holiday homes where my original walk started. The only stones to be found were a blunt obelisk commemorating the “completion of the Raising of the Thames Flood Defences between 1975-85” and a compacted cairn, like the remains of a fireplace after a bomb blast, from which the plaque had been removed.

This passage is substantially built of sentence fragments. It’s a typical Sinclair construction. What would Wood make of it? Would he choke on it? In How Fiction Works, he says, “But I choke on too much detail.” Is this description of the Thames Estuary too much? Do its nine sentence fragments restrict its meaning? Yes, it’s heavily visual. Does it fetishize detail or does it vigorously and vividly evoke a walk along an industrial river, put us squarely there with Sinclair as he searches for the London Stone? Wood’s view on sentence fragments raises interesting questions. I hope he elaborates on it in future pieces.

Anthony Lane’s “In the Picture,” a review of Arthur Lubow’s Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer, is a positive delight, as are all his photography pieces. I wish he’d collect them in a book. There are at least ten (counting the Arbus piece) that I know of – “A Balzac of the Camera” (Eugène Atget) “The Eye of the Land” (Walker Evans), “The Shutterbug” (William Klein), “Faces in the Crowd” (August Sander), “Road Show” (Robert Frank), “Candid Camera” (on the Leica camera), “Some Bodies” (Irving Penn), “Head On” (Richard Avedon), and “Shadows and Fog” (Edward Steichen). The first three are included in Lane’s Nobody’s Perfect, but the rest are uncollected.

“In the Picture” contains several wonderful epigrammatic lines:

Freaks may abound in her art, but not once do they freak her out.

It was as if “Leaves of Grass,” in need of an update, had been handed to Sylvia Plath.

All creatures great and small: nothing was foreign to Arbus, as she roamed the human zoo.

Even her most outlandish pictures come to seem like self-portraits: windows transmuted into mirrors.

Imprecision, like mercy, did not make them less true.

My favorite line in “In the Picture” is Lane’s reaction to Lubow’s description of a mosquito biting Arbus’s breast:

When a mosquito lands on his subject, Lubow is right there: “Changing its strategy, the insect whined upward and then landed on the nipple of her right breast. This time, it sank its feeder deep into her flesh and drank.” Even Boswell never got that close.

Alex Ross’s “Cello Nation” reviews Los Angeles’s Piatigorsky International Cello Festival. I’m not a cello fan. But I read Ross’s piece anyway because I savor his writing. “Cello Nation” 's last paragraph is a beauty. Ross writes,

The performance that will stay longest in my mind, though, was of the Elgar concerto, with the Norwegian cellist Truls Mørk. No player at the festival produced a handsomer tone: Mørk had the benefit of a magnificent instrument, a 1723 Domenico Montagnana, and he made it sing with unforced splendor, his expansive, Russian-inflected bowing and vibrato insuring that quiet passages floated into the far reaches of the hall. As an interpreter, Mørk avoided the noble-minded protocol—the high-school-graduation tread—that is too common in Elgar. Unmannered rubato gave a sense of moment-to-moment improvisation, of a halting search for honest expression. What emerged was a monologue set against a landscape of shadows: the cellist as Shakespearean actor, uneasy with the crown of power.

That “he made it sing with unforced splendor, his expansive, Russian-inflected bowing and vibrato insuring that quiet passages floated into the far reaches of the hall” is inspired!

Peter Schjeldahl’s “The Future Looked Bright,” a review of the Guggenheim Museum’s Moholy-Nagy retrospective, brought me news of an exquisite artwork that I was unaware of – László Moholy-Nagy’s Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1930). Schjeldahl describes it as “a sleek, motorized medley of finely machined rods, screens, perforated disks, and springs in metal, glass, wood, and plastic, set in a box with a circular cut in one side. The gleaming parts—a sort of industrialized synthesis of Cubist and Constructivist styles—reflect a play of colored electric lights inside the box.” He says, “Its rhapsodic inventiveness—there had never been anything like it before—puts it in a class of twentieth-century utopian icons.” A gorgeous photo of this “one-of-a-kind gizmo” illustrates the piece.

Other pleasures in this week’s issue: Bendik Kaltenborn’s "Thundercat" illustration for Matthew Trammell’s "Night Life: Rock Bottom"; Trammell’s “If Bruner’s lifelong craft as a bassist buries him in the low end, his voice beams goldenrod from a crack in the ceiling”; GOAT’s "Art: Mark Lyon" [“Lyon photographs landscapes in upstate New York while standing inside the bays of self-service car washes, boxlike spaces that supply the images with ready-made frames (graced by the occasional hose). The views—gas-station pumps, strip malls, a swatch of unnaturally green lawn—are transformed by Lyon’s keen eye. He works in daylight and darkness alike, regardless of weather, as fog, rain, and falling snow turn the everyday oddly magical”]; Jiayang Fan’s “The joy of Korean barbecue lies in part in its performance: watching ruby-red curls of brisket caramelize while translucent slices of Pringle-shaped tongue sizzle, crisp-edged and glinting” ("Tables For Two: Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong"); and Becky Cooper’s terrific "Bar Tab: Yours Sincerely," which I’m tempted to quote in full (it’s so damn good), but instead will simply highlight this superb detail: “The taps are porcelain doll heads, which stare like angelic witnesses to the evening’s festivities.” Check out the newyorker.com version of Cooper’s column; it features a wonderful Julia Rothman illustration. 

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